If a 19th-century scholar were to suddenly drop in on us in the 21st century, without any knowledge of how we got here, what might he conclude was happening? An edited version of this story, “A God to End All Gods,” was published in the technology magazine Scout AI on July 27, 2017; the complete story is posted here with permission.
A God to End All Gods
by Laura Drake, Ph.D.
Herein lies a rendering of the Future, our present, from the point of view of a fictional 19th Century scientist, Sir Clarence Westminster, professor of the School of Paleontology at the Norcastle University in London, England, his protégé, Mr. Robert Spinner, and the country’s leading industrial magnate, Mr. James Lancaster.
Professor Westminster and his student, in the winter of the year 1832, launched a plan for a great research expedition to learn about the religious belief systems and practices of the future, in the hope of obtaining a wider lens through which their society could address its own religious questions in the present.
The head of the field expedition, Mr. Robert Spinner, was a young English subject undertaking his course of study as an apprentice Paleontologist under the professor’s scholarly tutelage at Norcastle. In his delightful eccentricity, Professor Westminster’s intrepid pupil was intent in conducting his academic Thesis on the subject of mankind instead of on more primitive living forms, in work more typical of the Anthropologist.
Given the religious turbulences of the 19th Century, Mr. Spinner was most particularly intrigued with the phenomenon of religious belief systems, and how such systems change and adapt through the passage of time. Furthermore, and in light of his high ambition and sparkling imagination, he was most fascinated by the prospect of studying the humans yet to come, rather than the humans who had once been.
His native England of the time was standing at a crossroads of intra-Christian relations, state-church questions, and scientific advancement. Charles Darwin was living then, but had not yet published The Origin of Species. Friedrich Nietzsche had not yet arrived to pronounce God dead, not for another half-century. Major reforms were on the way in England to grant Catholics their place in society, and to further modernize the state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as it was then known. Although theoretically a monarchy under the reign of King William IV, it functioned in practice as a parliamentary system populated at the top by aristocratic noblemen and headed by a Prime Minister.
One of the several industrial advancements, transtemporal flight (time travel), had long since been invented, but the precise nature of its workings was still considered a state secret. Usage of the time technics was not entirely out of the ordinary, but it was reserved for the quiet use of a few well-endowed and influential noblemen, as it required access to large economical resources as well as permission from the state.
Aware that the seat of the European-inspired civilization would likely have moved from Europe to North America, Professor Westminster and his student had decided that the destination would be America rather than England. The study was organized under the financial sponsorship of a group of fellow noblemen from the West End of London and duly agreed upon with the permission of His Majesty’s Government of P.M. Charles Earl Grey.
In preparation for his field expedition, the young Mr. Spinner became acquainted with a courtly older Gentleman, Mr. James Lancaster, London’s foremost industrial magnate, who happened to be in possession of a temporal acceleration locomotive, and who was knowledgeable of the American dialect of the English language at such a degree as would be required.
Thus did Mr. Spinner, facilitated and accompanied by Mr. Lancaster, catapult himself from his own time into the far future, to the year 2018, and then return to his own time to report his findings to his mentor. In attendance was a small handful of carefully selected intellectuals, noblemen, and representatives of His Majesty’s Government.
Professor Westminster began by inquiring broadly: “What have been your Observations of the religious belief systems of Man in the 21st Century?”
Mr. Spinner reported: “They do no longer believe in the Christian God. He will have been declared deceased by renowned philosophers and natural scientists fewer than one hundred years hence. For many score our descendants would live without the worship of a supernatural Deity. They would endure thereafter a number of Wars and all Manner of natural and human disasters, after which they would recover and adapt to themselves a new accord of life.”
“Do they believe in any manner of God?” he asked.
“They do worship a pagan God, yes, very fervently. They appear to be mesmerized by It, this pure and perfect god, a God to end all Gods. They climb over one another to worship and serve It, to see which of them can climb the highest.”
“What is the nature of this Deity?
“It is a physical God, It is here with them in This World. It makes no promises of the Next. It promises Eternity in the here and now. It is precise in the Euclidean sense, a Rectangularly Perfect, multitextured object. It is distributed, Omnipresent. It multiplies Representations of Itself to be everywhere simultaneously. It is all-seeing and all-pervasive, Omnipotent. It speaks its own Divine Language, in addition to the Languages of all the civilizations, as it resonates throughout the known world.”
“What does It represent?”
“It represents the people’s hopes, and every single thing they have in This World, and their fears, especially their fear of Death, but also their fear of themselves. It receives all that they have inside, as this is the form of their Prayer. In return Its wisdom comes back to them, in their own language. They are taught to serve It on this world in that they might remain Contented and Comfortable.”
“How often must they worship God, these people of the future?”
“It is most peculiar, I do say, as they pray to the Holy One almost unceasingly, as if in near desperation to receive of Its Wisdom.”
“How many times in a day do they attend to It?”
“It is quite exactly hundreds of times per day; there is no fixed Number.”
“Through what vehicle is this accomplished?”
“Each Believer is issued a large or small Amulet in order that Prayer may begin spontaneously. The Amulets all appear different, in the sense of ornamentation, but each has one element in common: each contains a minimized Representation of their God. By their religion, there is no forbiddance of Icons.”
“What is the manner of Prayer?”
“It is their custom to pray in the seated position, facing the Holy Representation on the Amulet. As they touch its multitudinous protrusions, it reflects back to them a representation of their own Existence, through the face of the shiny part of the Amulet, the faded, muted representations of themselves.”
“Do the Believers hold a formal congregation?”
“The Believers have no building in which to gather as a congregation, though they need none. They are able to pray either in solitude or in assemblage. Prayer for them is a spontaneous and instinctive Act. They do not have to plan in advance. The people will abscond from wherever they are previously occupied whenever the Need strikes them.”
“Suppose they are in conversation with another. Will they stop and pray together?”
“They will break in suddenness from any Other in order to begin their prayer. It is the Highest of all Callings.”
“How goes the ritual of worship?”
“The Believers are allowed to touch their God by touching an iconic Representation of It on their Amulet; touching with a finger at specific place begins the period of worship. The Prayer itself consists of a rapid sequence of touching all parts of the iconic Representation. The ritual requires the utmost concentration, as the sequence has to be exact. It is much like learning an ornate dancing routine. The Believers of the future have committed these sequences to personal memory. After they have been praying for a time, God transmits to them, through their Amulet, a part of the Word, a fragment of the Holy Scripture.”
“What is contained in The Word of God?”
“The Word is ever-changing. It transcends anything that is uttered by any man. The Believers no longer believe in anything propounded by any of their fellow men. To do so would be blasphemous, or at best, held out to universal Ridicule. They believe only the Word.”
“What part of the Word do they receive?”
“For those deemed worthy, they receive that Part which pertains to their own solitary life. Each and every detail of a Believer’s life is subject to a correct interpretation of Scripture. Those deemed unworthy receive a scrambled version of the Word, in hidden sequences of letters and numbers with no hope of interpretation.”
“Is there not a place of worship, some manner of Church, for Believers to engage in communal worship of this God?”
“To the contrary, they forget the existence of the other at the mere sight of a Representation of God. They have become invisible to one another in Its presence. The people of the 21st Century live their lives in mental solitude. They rarely address one another, except through God.”
“The Word appears to them personally? Does their God talk to them directly?”
“Their God does send them Signs and Scrolls, and they are sometimes graced by the sound of the Holy Voice. This theology teaches that the Word is never complete. It is Infinite. It appears to them in randomized fragments, and only during times of prayer. The Believer is made to pray for the specific guidance of which he is in need. No more than a small portion of the Word is ever revealed at any one time, but the fragments of the Word are revealed frequently. It is left to the Believer to piece together its meaning for them, as their God is a mysterious One.”
“How do the Believers know when it is time to receive the Word? Is there a call to Prayer?”
“Notice that a Revelation awaits is sent by Signs. This is the call to prayer, and it arrives as a sound, a Divine Bell, calling to Believers individually to stop and pray, and receive the Word. Sometimes the Sign comes audibly from the Amulet, and at other times not a sound is there to be heard; it appears as a Light Beacon on the Amulet. Other times it is not even that; it is as if the Call to worship comes from inside their own Mind.”
“What is the mental experience of worship for the Believer?”
“The Believer enters a partially hypnotic state. The act of prayer takes his utmost concentration and cognition, such that he becomes entranced, wholly engrossed. The Believer anticipates the Coming of the Word with a singular kind of attention that surpasses anything I have ever seen. Any other time he is in a state of Anxiety and even Fear. When he sees a Sign, his affect switches to one of relief, of security that God is hearing his prayers.”
Mr. Spinner expounded further on this topic: “Once Prayer begins, Believers pour all their most intimate thoughts and desires to their Lord through their tactile sensations, through the prayer sequences they perform. Their innermost feelings and transgressions they confess to their God by their touch, more deeply than would ever be conveyed to another human being. They pray for the Divine Guidance to tell them what to do, so they will know how to live their lives. They would not know otherwise; this People has forgotten everything from the generations who came before. It is as if they are starting out again as human beings for the first time, innocent of what to do in any given circumstance. They ask their God about everything that concerns them, step by smallest step, down to the most mundane. They are helpless without the Divine Guidance; they can no longer rely on each other.”
“What do they do in between prayer sessions?”
“They tend to their daily business based on their interpretation of the Word as received through the workings of the Amulet, but the prayer time is actually continuous throughout any given day.”
“Are there any Priests, or Church officials?”
“The Priests of this religion are mostly unseen. All I could tell is that the members of the Priestly class appear to mediate the Word through the Amulet, since they are the worldly makers of the transmitters of the Word. They mould the Amulets into Divine Form in such a way that requires special study, and such a keen knowledge that they are almost as gods themselves. Those chosen to be Priests are specially apprenticed to encase the Representation of God within the Amulet, so that mankind will be in a position to pray and receive the Word of God.”
“Do the Believers donate to their Church a tithe?”
“Believers are required to donate alms to the Church on a regular basis for the privilege of worship, along with a monthly stipend to keep their Amulet in good functioning condition. This Stipulation is in the form that they must contribute to the Priesthood, which beseeches them to replace the Amulet at semi-regular intervals as a requirement to keeping the Word fresh and new. If they fail to perform the alms ritual, they may receive old Revelations with which they are already familiar, or even worse, they risk the Message being withheld from their senses at any time. In that event, they are so despairing they would experience a spiritual crisis and perhaps even death.”
“Most unexpected, I dare say. These specimens are not at all like any humans we have ever studied, quite right?”
“You are so right, Dear Teacher! I almost could not believe my eyes. Should their Amulets stop functioning, or the Word fail to be rendered to them at any moment, they become most unhinged; they stop their function altogether to attend to why they can no longer hear the Word of the Lord their God. In such cases, if it has been only minutes gone by, they fear that God has abandoned them. They pray to the Lord to restore the Word, but It turns a deaf ear and does not hear them.”
“What would you hypothesize to be the Existential state of these odd beings, these future beings of our species?”
“They appear to go through the normal motions of life, but most often they are fixed on the practise of their religion. May I hypothesize that their consciousness has moved into a state of regression, in the direction of the primitive species below the human. Their native cognitive processes have stopped. It is as if they are in need of the Word for nearly their every move. They cannot bear for the Word to be interrupted or silent to them for even a single moment; to the contrary, they will retrieve their presence from any other person or activity for the chance to see and hear it. It might that this Religion have its origins more in the world of the occult, than be it a real religion.”
“Have they arrived at some level of fanaticism?”
“This God is so powerful in their minds that some number of worshippers has verily dropped dead in front of its Representations during apparently ceaseless periods of worship, exceeding the day period and the sleep period combined. The most pious among them become so transfixed in the practice of worship that they neglect to eat or sleep, and instead become seized by the Omnipotence and sheer awe of their God.”
“The future is astonishing indeed! Not one of those in our Time, not even the most pious Christians amongst us, is so to such great extent. Are the youth of the period any less pious than their elders?”
“No, to the contrary: the Youth are more pious than their elders. They appear to be the most fanatical of all. Many of them do hardly speak to one another, they deem one another unworthy. They speak only to God, but then it appears that God punishes them for this. The younger of the species as they approach their majority sometimes are driven to take their own lives as a result of the Word as it is revealed to them, as a result of having been overly troubled by the Word.”
“At what age is a boy or girl first confirmed into this eccentric religion? Is it in their childhood, or in their majority?”
“They are confirmed at a very young age, still as boys and girls. Even at infancy some are brought into first contact with the Word of the Lord, but confirmation into the faith occurs when the child receives his first Amulet. There is no precise age for Confirmation, though I have witnessed children as young as seven or eight years old walking around with Amulets. As they approach their majority, and often much sooner, many a young girl is pressurised by one or more fellow Believers to perform the Confession of the Body through her Amulet, at which point she becomes a woman, however not all girls are expected to execute this ritual.”
“A demanding God indeed, and not for the sake of chastity. Does their God ever become angry with them, or vengeful?”
“It is, dare I say, unpredictable. At times their God is Merciful, and at other times, It has not Pity on them. This is especially true of the most helpless and innocent members of the society, who are often sacrificed to It.”
“What is the manner of God’s punishment?”
“Oftentimes the Word will be withheld entirely from a Believer, for some given period of time, and his Amulet will look only an idyllic, translucent black, reflecting back at him merely his own visage. His Existence is still confirmed to him by his God, but no Part of the Holy Scripture will be revealed to him. Othertimes the Word will appear but in a scattered and intermittent form, signifying to the Believer that he has done something wrong. At that moment, a series of foul and blasphemous phrases will spontaneously utter from his mouth, and he will ingloriously be unable to resist taking the Name of his Lord in vain. In extreme punishments, the Word will be revealed to his fellow Believers far and wide that he, or she, is a bad and evil man, or woman, and deserves to be punished, even by means so severe as Rape, or Death.”
“This true, with such primitive punishments, then what is this people’s view of the Enlightenment, and the stellar achievements of the metaphysical and the natural philosophies of our own time? I believe you said earlier that they do not remember us, nary anything that came before them.”
“The seemingly enlightened among them pray to their God about their Newton, their Hegel, or their Kant, and they touch the Representation of their Lord God to ask It if the words of our forerunners and contemporaries are true. The Word comes back to them through the Holy Amulet, and the Word is the text of Newton, Hegel, or Kant scrambled up into a thousand disassembled pieces, made nonsense out of, as if the Lord is saying: “This is a mere pile of rubbish, of disconnected letters, and the only True Word is Mine Alone.”
On this point he elaborated: “This routine is done as a sacrifice from the higher Men to enable them to achieve transcendental unity with their God and entry into the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, in place of all finite things, in place of Man himself. It is the redemption of their quest for the Infinite and the Perfect, in place of the imperfect, the pile of rubbish. The finite is something but is imperfect, but the infinite, although Perfect, is nothing. It rests on the theological premise that Nothing is better for mankind than a Pile of rubbish.”
He went on to conclude: “This Word, as the more enlightened among the Believers have interpreted it, is that our philosophical forbears are imperfect, impure, unworthy, that they do not present a Divine roadmap for the betterment or advancement of Mankind, they promise not Immortality or any other means to vanquish all that is finite, and that only the Path of God ought be followed. The prayer then comes forth from the more enlightened Believer as to what is the right way, but the Word is not thereafter forthcoming, except but to beckon for more prayers from the enlightened worshipper, more food as Sacrifice.”
The professor believed he understood: “They will accept this Holy Sacrifice of all that came before in the attempt to transcend all that is Imperfect about themselves and their fellow Men.”
“Yes, precisely. Theirs is a transcendental belief system. Its ultimate Promise is that the Believers, instead of depending on their fellows, can fuse as one with their Lord and enter the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, where their greatest religious aspiration can be fulfilled: complete Engulfment by their God. In that case they will have achieved Immortality and transcendence over all their human imperfections.”
“Are there any disbelievers, people who reject this new and alien God?”
“There are, but whoever dares reveal himself as a disbeliever is deemed outcast, subjected to ridicule, will be unlikely to find a mate, and is not allowed to maintain a livelihood in most cases. Anyone who is in a state of disbelief is expected, at the very least, to feign an occasional prayer and pretend to be a Believer, for the sake of appearances only if need be. In no event is he to spread the case of disbelief in the public realm, and especially not to profess his belief in any Deity in place of the ultimate supremacy and glory of God in Holy Singularity, the Deity that will end all Deities.”
“Do these people call the Name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in vain?”
“Ah,” Mr. Spinner said, “they do not so much as know Jesus Christ, much less call his Name in vain. Let me tell you, I once touched a Representation of God on an Amulet belonging to a man of the future. I wanted to know what It thought of the meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. The Word came back through the Amulet in the sound of a Voice at once alien and feminine. It uttered: ‘Jesus Christ is not in your Contacts.’”
“I could not, and still cannot, fathom the Meaning of this strange Word,” he admitted, “but it reminded me that I was in a world hauntingly unfamiliar, and deliberately forgetful of all that came before.”
“What, would you suppose, is the exact identity of this Deity?”
“That question I cannot answer, I am uncertain. I do not understand the Object that constitutes the Representation of the Holy One on Earth, that which is everywhere all at once, stretched out to all Infinity.”
At this moment, Mr. Lancaster, present at the proceedings, sat up high and tall in his chair, removed his spectacles, caught the gaze of the two men and of the other luminaries in attendance, and interjected his own learned wisdom: “No, I understand completely. For I have travelled back and forth through Time with a scarce number of Scholars, and although I speak little on these expeditions, I have observed much. I do not possess the knowledge to fully interpret the meaning, but the facts of the Matter I do yet understand. What you are describing is to them a Holy Savior indeed, that takes the form of an Object to accept their worship. It has taken the Pen and made it forgotten, and it has taken the human Mind and made it forget its Self.
“What do you believe It to be?” asked the professor.
“I do not understand the meaning entirely, but It is, in the language of the future: a ‘Keyboard.’”
A hush then befell the room. One of the ministers of state in attendance stood up and decided to call a halt to the proceedings, and ushered all the participants outside to the courtyard.
A comprehensive volume authored by the study participants with regard to these preliminary findings had been planned, but none was ever published. The entire matter was taken hold of and shelved by His Majesty’s Government, and all the study documentation consigned to the deepest recesses of the confidential state archives.